In a previous article, we were able to establish that in all likelihood Jesus was referring to the wicked generation of Jews of his day when he gave his disciples the assurance found at Matthew 24:34. (See This Generation’ – A Fresh Look)
While a careful review of the three chapters starting with Matthew 21 has led us to that conclusion, what continues to muddy the waters for many are the 30 verses directly preceding Matthew 24:34. Do the things spoken of there have a bearing on the interpretation and fulfillment of Jesus’ words regarding “this generation”?
I, for one, used to believe so. In fact, I thought we could interpret the word “generation” to refer to all the anointed who have ever lived, since as children of God, they are the offspring of a single parent and thus, one generation. (See this article for more information.) Apollos also took a crack at the subject with a well-reasoned approach in which the Jewish people continue to constitute “this generation” down to the present day. (See his article here.) I eventually rejected my own line of reasoning for the reasons stated here, though I continued to believe there was a modern-day application. I am sure that this was due to the influence of decades of JW-think.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have always believed in a dual-fulfillment of Matthew 24:34, though the first century minor fulfillment has not been mentioned in quite some time. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t fit with our latest reinterpretation that has millions scratching their heads and wondering how there could be such a thing as two overlapping generations constituting what can only be called a “super generation”. There certainly was no such animal in the first century fulfillment which spanned a time period of less than forty years. If there was no overlapping generation in the minor fulfillment, why would we expect there to be one in the so-called major fulfillment? Rather than re-examine our premise, we just keep moving the goal posts.
And therein lies the heart of our problem. We are not letting the Bible define “this generation” and its application. Instead, we are imposing our own view on God’s word.
This is eisegesis.
Well, my friends…been there, done that; even bought the T-shirt. But I’m not doing it anymore.
Admittedly, it’s not such an easy thing to stop thinking this way. Eisegetical thinking doesn’t spring out of thin air, but is born of desire. In this case, the desire to know more than we have a right to know.
Are We There Yet?
It is human nature to want to know what is coming next. Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when everything he predicted was going to happen. It’s the grownup equivalent of kids in the back seat crying out, “Are we there yet?” Jehovah is driving this particular car and he’s not talking, but we still cry out repeatedly and annoyingly, “Are we there yet?” His answer—like that of most human fathers—is, “We’ll get there when we get there.”
He doesn’t use those words, of course, but through his Son he has said:
“No one knows the day or hour…” (Mt 24:36)
“Keep on the watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:42)
“…the Son of man is coming at an hour that you do not think to be it.” (Mt 24:44)
With three warnings in Matthew chapter 24 alone, you’d think we’d get the message. However, that’s not how eisegetical thinking works. It looks to exploit any Scripture that can be made to support one’s theory while ignoring, excusing, or even twisting those that do not. If one is seeking a means of divining Christ’s arrival, Matthew 24:32-34 seems perfect. There, Jesus tells his disciples to take a lesson from the trees which, when sprouting leaves, tell us that summer is near. Then he tops it off with an assurance to his followers that all things will occur within a specific time frame—a single generation.
So in a just one Bible chapter, we have three verses that tell us we have no way of knowing when Jesus will arrive and three more which seem to give us the means to determine just that.
Jesus loves us. He is also the source of truth. Therefore, he would not contradict himself nor would he give us conflicting instructions. So how do we resolve this conundrum?
If our agenda is to support a doctrinal interpretation, such as the overlapping generations doctrine, we will try reasoning that Mt 24:32-34 is speaking of a general time period in our day—a season, as it were—which we can discern and whose length we can measure approximately. In contrast, Mt. 24:36, 42, and 44 tells us that we cannot know the actual or specific day and hour when Christ will appear.
There is one immediate problem with that explanation and we come across it without even having to leave Matthew chapter 24. Verse 44 says that he is coming at a time we “do not think it to be.” Jesus foretells—and his words cannot fail to come true—that we’ll be saying, “Nah, not now. This couldn’t be the time,” when Boom! He shows up. How can we know the season when he will appear while thinking that he’s not about to appear? That makes no sense whatsoever.
Not withstanding, there is an even bigger obstacle to overcome if one wants to teach others that they can know the times and seasons of Jesus’ return.
An Injunction Imposed by God
About a month after Jesus was questioned about “all these things” and his presence, he was asked a related question.
“So when they had assembled, they asked him: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”” (Ac 1:6)
His answer seems to contradict his earlier words at Mt 24:32, 33.
“He said to them: “It does not belong to you to know the times or seasons that the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.” (Ac 1:7)
How could he tell them in one place to discern the season of his return, even to the point of measuring it within the span of a generation, while just over a month later he tells them that they have no right to know such times and seasons? Since our truthful and loving Lord would not do such a thing, we have to look to ourselves. Perhaps our desire to know what we have no right to know is misleading us. (2Pe 3:5)
There is no contradiction, of course. Jesus isn’t telling us that all times and seasons are unknowable, but only those which “the Father has placed in his own jurisdiction.” If we consider the question just asked at Acts 1:6 and tie that in with what Jesus tells us at Matthew 24:36, 42, 44 we can see that it is times and seasons relating to his return in kingly power—his presence—which are unknowable. Given that, what he says at Matthew 24:32-34 must relate to something other than his presence as King.
When the disciples formed their three-part question at Matthew 24:3, they thought Christ’s presence would be concurrent with the destruction of the city and the temple. (We must bear in mind that “presence” [Greek: parousia] has the meaning of coming as a King or ruler—see Appendix A) This explains why the two parallel accounts in Mark and Luke fail to even mention the presence or return of Jesus. To those writers, it was redundant. They were not to know otherwise, because had Jesus revealed this, he would have been giving away information which it was not theirs to know. (Acts 1:7)
Harmonizing the Data
With this in mind, it becomes relatively easy to find an explanation which harmonizes all the facts.
As we would expect, Jesus answered the disciples’ question accurately. While he did not give them all the information they may have desired, he did tell them what they needed to know. In fact, he told them a lot more than they asked for. From Matthew 24:15-20 he answered the question pertaining to “all these things”. Depending on one’s point of view, this also fulfills the question concerning the “end of the age” since the Jewish age as God’s chosen nation did end in 70 C.E. In verses 29 and 30 he provides the sign of his presence. He closes with a reassurance regarding the final reward for his disciples in verse 31.
The injunction against knowing the times and seasons that the Father has put in his own jurisdiction pertains to the presence of the Christ, not “all these things.” Therefore, Jesus is free to give them the metaphor at verse 32 and add to that the generation time measurement so that they could be prepared.
This fits with the facts of history. Four or five years before the Roman armies first attacked, Hebrew Christians were told to not abandon their gathering together as they beheld the day drawing near. (He 10:24, 25) The unrest and turmoil in Jerusalem grew due to anti-taxation protests and attacks on Roman citizens. It reached a boiling point when the Romans plundered the temple and killed thousands of Jews. A full rebellion broke out, culminating in the annihilation of the Roman Garrison. The times and seasons relating to the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple and the end of the Jewish system of things was as plain to see for discerning Christians as the sprouting of leaves on trees.
No such provision has been made for Christians facing the end of the worldwide system of things which comes on the heels of Jesus’ return. Perhaps this is because our escape is out of our hands. Unlike first century Christians who had to take courageous and arduous action to be saved, our escape depends only on our endurance and patience as we wait for the time when Jesus sends forth his angels to gather up his chosen ones. (Lu 21:28; Mt 24:31)
Our Lord Gives Us a Warning
Jesus was asked for a sign by his disciples while they were on the Mount of Olives. There are only about seven verses in Matthew 24 that actually answer that question directly by providing signs. All the rest comprise warnings and cautionary advice.
- 4-8: Do not be misled by natural and man-made catastrophes.
- 9-13: Beware of false prophets and prepare for persecution.
- 16-21: Be ready to give up everything to flee.
- 23-26: Don’t be misled by false prophets with tales of Christ’s presence.
- 36-44: Be vigilant, for the day will come without warning.
- 45-51: Be faithful and wise, or suffer the consequences.
We Have Failed to Listen
The disciples misconception that his return would coincide with the destruction of Jerusalem and that there would be a new, restored nation of Israel rising from the ashes would inevitably lead to discouragement. (Pr 13:12) As the years passed and still Jesus did not return, they would need to re-evaluate their understanding. At such a time, they would be vulnerable to clever men with twisted ideas. (Acts 20:29, 30)
Such men would exploit natural and man-made catastrophes as false signs. So the first thing Jesus warns his disciples about is not to be startled nor misled into thinking that such things would signal his imminent arrival. Yet as Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is precisely what we have done and continue to do. Even now, at a time when world conditions are improving, we preach worsening world conditions as evidence that Jesus is present.
Jesus next warned his followers against false prophets predicting how close the time was. A parallel account in Luke carries this warning:
“He said: “Look out that you are not misled, for many will come on the basis of my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The due time is near.’ Do not go after them.” (Lu 21:8)
Again, we have chosen to ignore his warning. Russell’s prophecies failed. Rutherford’s prophecies failed. Fred Franz, the chief architect of the 1975 fiasco, also misled many with false expectations. These men may or may not have had good intentions, but there is no doubt that their failed prognostications caused many to lose their faith.
Have we learned our lesson? Are we finally listening to and obeying our Lord, Jesus? Apparently not, for many eagerly embrace the latest doctrinal fabrication reiterated and refined in David Splane’s September broadcast. Again, we are being told that “the due time is near.”
Our failure to listen, obey and be blessed by our Lord continues as we have succumbed to the very thing which at Matthew 24:23-26 he warned us to avoid. He said not to be misled by false prophets and false anointed ones (christos) who will say they’ve found the Lord in places hidden from sight, i.e., invisible places. Such ones would mislead others—even the chosen ones—with “great signs and wonders.” It is to be expected that a false anointed one (false Christ) will produce false signs and false wonders. But seriously, have we been misled by such wonders and signs? You be the judge:
“Regardless of how long we have been in the truth, we must tell others about Jehovah’s organization. The existence of a spiritual paradise in the midst of a wicked, corrupt, and loveless world is a modern-day miracle! The wonders about Jehovah’s organization, or “Zion,” and the truth about the spiritual paradise must be joyfully passed on “to future generations.” — ws15/07 p. 7 par. 13
This is not to suggest that only Jehovah’s Witnesses have failed to heed Christ’s warning and been deceived by false prophets and false anointed ones making up fake miracles and pretend wonders. The evidence is abundant that the vast majority of Christians put faith in men and are being similarly misled. But saying we are not the only ones is hardly a cause for boasting.
What about the Great Tribulation?
This has not been an exhaustive study of this topic. Nevertheless, our main point was to establish what generation Jesus referred to at Matthew 24:34, and between the two articles, we have accomplished that.
While the conclusion may seem clear at this point, there are still two issues which we need to harmonize with the rest of the account.
- Matthew 24:21 speaks of a “great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now…nor will occur again.”
- Matthew 24:22 foretells that the days will be cut short on account of the chosen ones.
What is the great tribulation and how and when are, or were, the days to be cut short? We will attempt to tackle those questions in the next article titled, This Generation – Tying Up Loose Ends.
In the first century Roman Empire, long distance communication was difficult and fraught with danger. Couriers could take weeks or even months to deliver important governmental communiques. Given that situation, one can see that the physical presence of a ruler would be of great significance. When the king visited some area of his domain, things got done. Thus the presence of the king had an important subtext lost to the modern world.
From New Testament Words by William Barclay, p. 223
“Further, one of the commonest things is that provinces dated a new era from the parousia of the emperor. Cos dated a new era from the parousia of Gaius Caesar in A.D. 4, as did Greece from the parousia of Hadrian in A.D. 24. A new section of time emerged with the coming of the king.
Another common practice was to strike new coins to commemorate the visitation of the king. Hadrian’s travels can be followed by the coins which were struck to commemorate his visits. When Nero visited Corinth coins were struck to commemorate his adventus, advent, which is the Latin equivalent of the Greek parousia. It was as if with the coming of the king a new set of values had emerged.
Parousia is sometimes used of the ‘invasion’ of a province by a general. It is so used of the invasion of Asia by Mithradates. It describes the entrance on the scene by a new and conquering power.”